“Proposition 14”: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Sometimes, one can learn more from what wasn't said than from what was said.

In 1978, California voters approved Proposition 13, a property tax reform measure. Later in that same year, the New York Racing Association reduced its takeout on win, place and show bets from 17 per cent to 14 per cent, rather plagiaristically advertising the change as "Proposition 14."

The NFL could be headed for a "Proposition 14" of its own — namely, an expansion of its playoff field from the current 12 teams to 14.

At a league meeting Wednesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell stated that there is "no momentum" among the owners for changing the playoff seeding format, which guarantees every division winner a home playoff game regardless of won-lost records, this becoming a topic of debate because of the sad state of the NFC East, whose "champion" may get to host a team that finished as many as six games ahead of them in a wild card playoff game.

But are those complaining about this making the wrong complaint — the right complaint being that a team that doesn't make the playoffs at all might (and this year, probably will) have a better record than the "winner" of a weak division?

Since the current playoff format, which has only two wild cards in each conference, making it more likely to happen, was adopted with the 2002 realignment, this has happened six times within the same conference — in 2008, when the 11-5 Patriots didn't make the playoffs while the 8-8 Chargers did; in 2010, when not one but two 10-6 teams (the Giants and Buccaneers) didn't make it, but the 7-9 Seahawks did; in 2011, with the 9-7 Titans missing, but the 8-8 Broncos making, the playoffs; in 2013, when the 10-6 Cardinals watched the playoffs on television while the 8-7-1 Packers made it; in 2014, with the 10-6 Eagles out and the 7-8-1 Panthers in; and in 2015, when the playoff field did not include the 10-6 Jets but did include the 9-7 Texans.

This did not happen even once from 1990 through 2001, when each conference had three divisions, and the three division winners plus three wild-card teams advanced to the playoffs. Even when each conference had two wild cards before that, from 1978 through 1989, it only happened twice — in 1979 (the 10-6 Redskins out, the 9-7 Rams in) and in 1985 (the 11-5 Broncos out, the 8-8 Browns in).

Worse yet, until a decade ago, the teams unfairly kept out of the playoffs drafted behind the poorer teams that leap-frogged them. This ridiculous situation was finally rectified with the draft of 2010.

"Tradition" can be used to justify giving a team that won their division home field over a team that didn't. But keeping a team out of the playoffs altogether while letting a team with a poorer record in is clearly a bridge too far.

A 14-team playoff also opens up the possibility of a team that did not win their division hosting a divisional playoff game: say that, in the same conference, the 2 seed (which would no longer get a first-round bye), 3 seed, and 4 seed all lose their wild-card games. In that case, the divisional playoffs would consist of the 1 seed (which would retain their bye) hosting the new 7 seed, with the 5 seed (which did not win their division) hosting the 6 seed. Sooner or later it is bound to happen (and remember that, as already pointed out, the 7 seed may have finished with a better record than the 4 seed, making the above scenario that much more plausible).

In addition, unlike the proposal that would lengthen the regular season, either to 17 games or 18, the owners and the NFLPA appear to be on the same page with this. It could even indirectly lead to expansion (another thing that neither side figures to oppose), in that 14 (the number of teams that would make the playoffs) out of 32 (the number of teams in the NFL) is 43.8%, representing an all-time high (12 out of 28, or 42.9%, qualified from 1990 through 1994).

Fourteen out of 34, however, is only 41.2% — and a 34-team league could even be a transition to a 36-team league (as the 31-team league of 1999-2001 turned out to be a transition to the present 32-team league), the 34-team phase featuring a 17-game schedule with the two expansion teams playing each other once and all 16 established teams in their own conference once (the Seahawks and Buccaneers having played such a schedule in both 1976 and 1977 and the Falcons having done so in 1966, with the Cowboys having done the same thing in 1960).

And you know the owners and their attitude toward the almighty dollar, which Washington Irving correctly identified way back in 1836 as "that great object of universal devotion throughout our land."

They are likely to find making more of those almighty dollars while correcting an obvious inequity what Don Corleone said in 1972 — an offer they can't refuse.

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